Heraclitus: Part Two

Tom Morris

Last week, we began to look at the ancient philosopher Heraclitus and his sometimes enigmatic wisdom. Today, let's start with his most famous pronouncement:

All things change. (36)

This is sometimes translated "Everything is always changing," which, as extreme as it sounds, was Heraclitus' view. Has there been change in your life recently? Well, join the party. There is constant change going on, whether we realize it or not. All is in flux. If you go to wade across a river, Heraclitus said, the water you first step into is different from the water your second step touches. Things flow on. Permanence is an illusion. If you haven't yet noticed this, get ready. You will.

But aren't there things that never change? Aren't there, for example, values that are eternally unchanging. I think the answer is yes. But Heraclitus was directing his attention not to the unseen world of abstract values, but to the visible world of material items and events. And because of what he saw, he even went so far as to rethink certain values.

Most of us put a strong positive value on calmness and peacefulness, equilibrium or homeostasis. Heraclitus believed that real harmony in life requires a dynamic tension of opposities vying for ascendancy. He wrote:

The poet was a fool
what wanted no conflict
among us, gods
or people.
Harmony needs
low and high,
as progeny needs
man and woman. (43)

He clarifies his view further by saying:

From the strain
of binding opposites
comes harmony. (46)

In saying this, he anticipated the German philosopher Hegel, the enormously influential nineteenth century thinker who claimed that life is a continual, repeated outworking of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Something is posited, its opposite arises, and a dynamic interaction gives way to a grand synthesis, which in turn itself becomes a thesis, giving rise to a antithesis, which, in dynamic interplay, gives birth to a further synthesis, and so on. It all began when, according to Hegel, the Absolute Spirit, God (the ultimate Thesis) created a material world (the Antithesis) and then gave rise to Man (the cosmic Synthesis - mind and body). This pattern then worked itself out in history, socially, politically, and in other ways. The Hegelian world was a world of ongoing change, like the world of Heraclitus.

In a business context, we often see the fruitful results of surrounding ourselves with people who have very different talents and tendencies, but only if these "opposites" are embodied in a way consonant with the deepest values being shared by all parties. So the opposites that we see as fruitful partners creating a dynamic harmony are not after all opposite in all ways.

Concerning harmony, Heraclitus remarks:

The harmony past knowing sounds
more deeply than the known. (47)

But what this means, we can only guess. Things aren't always what they appear. And the seen is surface, the unseen is depth. There are true harmonies that can appear on the surface to be shot through with tension or conflict, and yet the relationship in place is a dance that is being enacted, with, perhaps, a depth, beauty and productivity not immediately manifest.

This is typical philosopher stuff. Don't judge a book by its cover. Look deep. Think different. Confound your friends.

But Heraclitus then whips around and says:

Yet let's not make
rash guesses
our most lucid thoughts. (48)

We should indeed not be too quick to take surface appearances as realities. But we also should never be too quick to infer depth and excellence below a surface that seems strongly to indicate otherwise. It is possible in life occasionally to be profoundly wrong.

Our philosopher reminds us that:

Seekers of wisdom first
need sound intelligence. (49)

Philosophers like to point out that wisdom is not just knowledge, and insight is not just information. But there can be no good insight without proper information on which to base it, and, likewise, there can be no wisdom that is not founded in knowledge. The philosopher's quest does not cut free from the world of data and experience, it just seeks to plumb the extra depths of that world that too many of us too often ignore.

Heraclitus has several thoughts about people working together. He wants us to understand that you can't force harmony or partnership. And unity in this world is a fragile thing. He says:

Two made one are never one.
Arguing the same we disagree.
Singing together we compete.
We choose each other
to be one, and from the one
both soon diverge. (59)

A good relationship requires constant, and sometimes hard, work. It requires goodness and kindness. It also requires truth. Heraclitus says:

Since mindfulness, of all things,
is the ground of being,
to speak one's true mind,
and to keep things known
in common, serves all being,
just as laws made clear
uphold the city,
yet with greater strength.
Of all pronouncements of the law
the one source is the Word
whereby we choose what helps
true mindfulness prevail. (91)

This is a statement that bears repeated reading. In the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business, I've argued that the four foundations of lasting excellence in any work we do with other people are truth, beauty, goodness, and unity, the last of which is itself anchored in the others, as they are in it.

Heraclitus says more that is relevant to the opportunity and challenge of working with other people. We can't bring people in to our processes with an enthusiastic courtship and then leave them to their own devices. He writes:

Goat cheese melted
in warm wine congeals
if not well stirred. (84)

And with this unusual image, with the cheese congealed and floating in your wine, I leave you until next week.

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